Tuesday 23 June 2020

#CBR12 Book 27: "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Official book description:
The Georgia Flu explodes over the surface of the earth like a neutron bomb.
News reports put the mortality rate at over 99%.

Civilization has crumbled.

A band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony move through their territories performing concerts and Shakespeare to the settlements that have grown up there. Twenty years after the pandemic, life feels relatively safe.

But now a new danger looms, and he threatens the hopeful world every survivor has tried to rebuild.

Moving backwards and forwards in time, from the glittering years just before the collapse to the strange and altered world that exists twenty years after, Station Eleven charts the unexpected twists of fate that connect six people: famous actor Arthur Leander; Jeevan - warned about the flu just in time; Arthur's first wife Miranda; Arthur's oldest friend Clark; Kirsten, a young actress with the Travelling Symphony; and the mysterious and self-proclaimed 'prophet'.

Thrilling, unique and deeply moving, this is a beautiful novel that asks questions about art and fame and about the relationships that sustain us through anything - even the end of the world. 

This was our very first Cannonball Book Club pick back in 2015, and I read and reviewed the book back then too. My original review can be found here. It took me a while back then to decide that I actually wanted to read the book for myself, and I'm not going to lie, re-reading it while a pandemic swept from Asia towards Europe and the USA, was making me a bit nervous. Looking back at the dates when I re-read this book, it was exactly during the time when Norway literally shut down, when the most drastic measures in post-World War II society were implemented, all over the course of a few days. I began my re-read of this on the 12th of March, on my way to work. By the afternoon, we'd been told that the nurseries, schools and universities, not to mention pretty much all major businesses, would be closed until further notice, and everyone was encouraged to just remain indoors, in a kind of pre-quarantine.

Of course, I'm reviewing the book some three months later, and while the pandemic is currently under control in certain parts of the world, it's still spreading wildly and terrifyingly fast in other parts of the globe. While I would love to believe the hopeful views on humanity and survival that are explored in this novel, the current news cycle shows that most people are short-sighted, egotistical, self-centred and careless. It's boring and difficult, not to mention very inconvenient to shelter in place and stay away from people for months. It's much nicer if you can just go about your business instead.  It's hot and uncomfortable to wear a mask to protect others, so a whole bunch of people are just not going to do that, despite all the factual evidence that we could massively halt the spread of the virus if everyone (especially the ones who don't feel sick, but may be asymptomatic carriers) just wore a face mask, washed their hands a lot and tried to keep their distance when out and about.

Station Eleven is a science fiction novel, it's set in a post-apocalyptic society, but it is nevertheless a hopeful and uplifting read. I don't think Emily St. John Mandel would dream of the situations that Covid-19 has created world-wide back when she wrote her book, and as I said, right now, the things that seem the most far fetched and fictional to me, are how well the "Fifteen years later" societies are managing. Of course, we're currently in the middle of "Year One" of this scenario, so perhaps, in the future, when a terrifyingly tragic percentage of the population has died (even if it's not 99%, like in this book), people will again focus mainly on re-building communities and re-discovering art and beauty and togetherness.

This wasn't supposed to be quite such a depressing whinge about how bafflingly selfish a lot of people currently are, but rather a review of my re-read of the book. In my mind, I'd built up the bits I disliked, with the 'Prophet', into a much larger part of the story. So much of the book looks back on the lives of a lot of the people before the Georgia flu hit and subsequently make us care when they are either killed by the flu themselves or lose other loved ones from the illness. It's still a wonderful book, and I'm glad we revisited it for Book Club.

Judging a book by its cover: I own three copies of this book. An e-book copy, an Audible audiobook and the UK paperback copy, which I was gifted in a Cannonball Book Exchange. This is the cover of the paperback I have, which seems extra timely now that an actual pandemic is sweeping the world and we saw that in places where people were forced to isolate during the lockdown, wild animals really did end up roaming the urban streets, undisturbed by people. So the deer facing the reader among the high rises of a city doesn't seem as strange as it may have once done. It doesn't take long for nature to start reclaiming the space we take up.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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